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The Rev. James Page, pastor of Galloway UMC, Annandale, was a participant.

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

A group of African American pastors from across Virginia on Thursday, Jan. 7, called for the abolition of the death penalty in the upcoming Virginia General Assembly, citing the sometimes racist application of capital punishment in the state.

“The history of capital punishment finds its roots in slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow,” said Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. “Capital punishment is a racial justice issue. It is beyond time for us to address this historical sin.”

Roberta Oster, communications director for the center, which organized Thursday’s event, said abolishing the death penalty is one of the group’s top legislative priorities for the 2021 legislative session.

Efforts to end the death penalty have failed in recent legislative sessions, but proponents of abolition said they are optimistic this year. One bill has been introduced in the House and at least one other is expected to be introduced in the Senate with sponsors from both parties.

Others speaking on Thursday’s Zoom press conference were: Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy, co-chairperson of the Social Justice Committee of the Henrico Ministers’ Conference and the senior pastor of Seven Pines Baptist Church; Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner, president of the Danville Ministers’ Alliance and assistant pastor of North Hope Baptist Church; Rev. James Page, co-chairperson of the Virginia United Methodist Conference Board of Church and Society and the senior pastor of the Galloway United Methodist Church; and Rev. Dr. Keith Jones, president of the Tidewater Metro Baptist Ministers’ Conference and senior pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church.

According to Virginians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the first execution in what would become the United States took place in Virginia in 1608. Since then Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, the most of any other state.

Advocates contend that Virginia had relatively few lynchings among Southern states following the Civil War because the state’s death penalty supplanted it.

Page said Thursday that “this death penalty set up was just a legal way of allowing lynching to continue without the word ‘lynch.'”

In 1908, executions were moved to a central location, the former Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, and the electric chair replaced hanging. Among other racial disparities, from 1908 to 1951, when seven Black men were executed for raping a white woman in Martinsville, all 45 men executed for rape were Black, none white.

Since the death penalty was allowed to resume by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996, Virginia has executed 113 people, a toll second only to Texas. The interfaith center said that while Blacks make up 20% of Virginia’s population, they account for 46% of those executed in modern times.

No one has been sentenced to death in the state since 2011 and there has not been an execution in four years. There are now just two persons on Virginia’s death row, both Black and sentenced to die for murders in Norfolk.

Earlier this week, the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, a group of 11 prosecutors in the state, called for the General Assembly to end the death penalty.

The prosecutors said in a statement that “the death penalty is unjust, racially-biased, and ineffective at deterring crime. We have more equitable and effective means of keeping our communities safe and addressing society’s most heinous crimes. It is past time for Virginia to end this antiquated practice.”

One bill has already been introduced in the House and at least one bill is expected to be considered in the Senate in the upcoming session. Gov. Ralph Northam has said he would sign abolition legislation if the General Assembly passes a bill.

Hardy said Thursday that “this is a great opportunity for the Commonwealth of Virginia, our legislative leaders, to end this immediately.”

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